I often get asked “what camera should I get?”, which is sort of like asking “what car should I drive?”, but I thought I’d take a few minutes to record my thoughts about cameras and travel.  When it comes to taking pictures while on the road, in the words of Crosby, Stills, and Nash “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with”.

I am very fortunate that I have access to a lot of my own equipment.  For most professional gigs, I shoot with a Digital SLR such as the Canon 5Dii with top quality L series lenses, external battery grip, high powered external flash, etc. etc.   While there is always more gear that I have my eye on, in reality I have most of what I want, which is great, but causes a real conundrum when I travel – haul a ton of gear and be ready to shoot almost anything, or travel light?

I also have a Canon Powershot G9 (the latest version in this series is the G11).  When I travel “heavy”, the G9 is my last line of defense, the backup to my backup.  But when I travel light, this is my go to camera.

What I love about the Powershot G series, having owned a G1 (my very first digital camera), a G5, and a G9 is that although these are small and relatively light, they pack in a lot of features not found on most compact cameras.  Foremost amongst these is the ability to shoot in the RAW format, which renders the best quality, and provides the most flexibility to later edit the image.  The camera also includes a hot shoe which permits the use of most of my high end Canon flash and flash accessories.  A lesser known function is that it also has a built in ND filter, which means that you can effectively lower the amount of light getting into the camera – what may sound like the opposite of what most photographers need, but this is very useful when you want to use a slow shutter speed to show motion blur, but the environment isn’t really dark enough.  The G9 did away with the rear swivel screen, but that’s back in the G11 and very useful for taking low angle images or shooting with the camera held above your head (e.g. when shooting over a crowd).

The key thing about any travel camera is that is it no use if you don’t have it with you, so the cardinal rule of travel photography for me is to always have your camera available.  This is much easier to do if you can put it in your pocket or on your waistbelt.   With DSLRs and even so called ZLR or bridge cameras (the all in-one-cameras with longer length built in zoom lenses), the problem is that you have to make a conscious decision whether or not to haul out the camera, and usually for at least some part of the trip, it stays in the bag or even the hotel room.

So what to do?  When traveling through Africa a couple of years ago, I hauled two DSLR bodies, a 100-400mm lens, 2x converter, 28-70mm lens, 17-55mm lens, flash gear and a number of accessories, including specialized mounts to steady the camera. And of course my G9 backup gear.  I used a large LowePro backpack camera bag, which also incorporates a laptop computer.  All this gear is HEAVY. I would guess at least 50lbs, and of course bulky and valuable.   I knew that for most of the trip we would be on the same vehicle and that I could store and have pretty ready access to it, so for me the problem was mostly getting it there.   When Air Namibia has a 7Kg (about 17lb) limit on hand  luggage, this in a bit of a problem.

Conversely for our travels through Central America this summer (and some of our previous trips elsewhere), I decided to go “lightweight”.  This means the G9, spare battery, charger, 580EXii external flash and diffuser, AA rechargeable batteries and charger (which we use for other devices such as flashlights) and a Gorilliapod GP3 with a ball head attached.  Despite the photo with a large zoom lens, this isn’t really up to holding a DSLR with such a large lens in the real world, but it is fantastic for a DSLR with smaller lenses, and ideal for the G9.  In addition to acting like any normal tabletop tripod, the flexible legs can be made to wrap around objects such as tree branches or railings, and can conform to odd shapes such as rock surfaces.

So, if you are considering purchasing a new compact travel camera, here are some things I suggest you consider:
a.  Size.  The camera is one you should be able to take with you everywhere you go.  If you have to decide whether to bring it with you when you go to dinner, etc., then you will inevitably leave it behind and miss some shots.
b. Usefulness in low light situations.  Every traveler will come across many situations where the quantity of light isn’t ideal.  There are a number of things that affect how useful a camera is in low light situations, so keep these in mind:
– The lens’ maximum aperture.  The smaller the F number, the more light the camera can let in and consequently the more useful it is in dimmer situations.  Note that most compact cameras do not have a constant maximum aperture, which means that at the widest angle setting of the lens, the maximum aperture is usually one or more stops brighter than at the maximum telephoto setting.   All things equal, a camera with a brighter maximum aperture is much more useful.
– The quality of the image processing chip and ISO settings.  You can boost the ISO setting on your camera to increase the effective sensitivity of the sensor thus allowing photography in dimmer light, but this comes at the cost of increased digital noise in your images.   Almost all cameras include (and market) ISO settings that are way beyond what is usable in reality.  For instance, my G9 can be set for ISO 1600 and even boosted beyond that, but in reality, images taken at over ISO 200 are too noisy.  Each successive generation of the image processing chip (for Canon, this is their DIGIC processor) makes a HUGE leap in quality of the higher ISO settings.  On my DSLRs, going from Digic III to Digic IV based models boosted the usable ISO by about 3 or more stops.  In English, this means that the newer models with better image processing chips are much better at low light photography.  Always investigate (online or ask a knowledgeable sales rep) what the highest ISO setting is that will yield a quality image and if your wondering why two seemingly similar 12MP cameras from the same manufacturer seem to be at significantly different costs, probably the more expensive one has a newer (and better) image processor.
– Flash power and flexibility.   Sooner or later you will need to add light to a low light scene and this means flash.  The build in flash in most compact cameras is very restrictive and is usually only helpful over very short distances.  Also, the flash may get blocked by the lens barrel at some focal lengths.  If the camera can take an external flash you have a lot of flexibility in using external flashguns and accessories providing many more options than a built-in flash only, but this feature is available only on the most expensive compact cameras and the external flash gear can be more expensive than the camera.   If you have to rely on built-in flash, look for models with more powerful flash and the ability to get the flash as far away from the lens as possible.  Some models have pop up flash, which do a better job of avoiding cutoff from the lens barrel and somewhat lessen the occurrence of red eye. Two downsides to pop up flash units are that they are susceptible to mechanical breakage and if you plan to use your camera in a waterproof housing, you may not be able to use the flash at all.
c. Lens capability and quality.  Better glass will always get you a better picture.  Look for models with better ratings on their optical characteristics.  Also, the optical  zoom length for most compact cameras is limited. Forget about “digital zoom” – this is just a gimmick that makes the camera specs seem better, but actually just discards pixels.  Optical zoom lengths are limited for most compact cameras, but some models have longer ranges than others.  Keep in mind if you shoot indoors or take landscape images that it is often possible to get closer to a subject, so even a moderate telephoto length can suffice, but it is perhaps more common to run into the problem that your camera is on its widest angle setting and you can’t get further back to include everything you want in the frame.  In other words, it isn’t just the zoom ratio (3x, 6x, 10x, etc.) that matters, but what the focal length of the lens is.  I would prefer a camera with a wider wide angle setting if I had a choice.  Some models can accept accessory wide angle and telephoto adapters to expand the native capability of the build in lens, but these are of limited value – they are expensive, bulky, inconvenient and sometimes of dubious optical quality.
d. Megapixel madness. Cameras are marketed with the idea that more megapixels means the camera must be better.   In fact once your camera has at least a minimum megapixel rating of about 8MP for most people anything beyond that is a waste.   A 4×6 print at maximum quality requires only 2MP.  An 8×10 at maximum quality only needs about 8MP. so unless you are creating a huge poster or cropping your image a lot (which has other issues anyway), a higher megapixel count isn’t buying you anything.  What IS important is the quality of the built in image processor in the camera and the quality of the lens.  I would rather have a camera with a high quality, newer image processor and good glass with a small megapixel count, than something with tons of megapixels but mediocre image processing quality.   This is where I think Canon and Nikon have the edge as they are the leaders in image processing hardware.   Sony and Olympus and perhaps Samsung I would rate close behind, at least for compact cameras.
e. Useful features build into the camera.   New and sometimes unique features are surfacing all the time and it is often fun to see what the manufacturers come up with next.  But ask yourself if the features are really useful to YOU.  For example, Nikon make a camera with a build in projector, the idea being that you can share your images more easily with others.  But it is low resolution and not very bright, so effectively almost worthless.  However, many cameras allow you to connect a cable to a TV and see your pictures at high quality on a larger screen – great for sharing and the feature adds little or no cost to the camera.   BTW, be on the lookout over the next year or so for models that will have this type of capability wirelessly. Another specialized feature is having a 2nd small LCD on the front of the camera.  If you take a lot of images where you want to get in the shot, this allows you to make sure you have framed the image correctly.   Cameras with a rear swivel screen can do the same thing.

There is obviously lots more one could talk about, but I’ll end it here.  

If you are in the market for a new camera, do your research first – the manufacturer’s own websites will have a lot of good info, but the excellent dpreview website should be your destination for impartial third party reviews, testing, and feedback.  Then go to a good camera store and try the models that most interest you.  Very few places allow cameras to be returned without at least a restocking fee, so it is important to choose wisely.  Take your time, find something you like, and BRING IT WITH YOU WHEREVER YOU TRAVEL!

Happy trails.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *